Ralph Nader, whose independent bid for the White House has received scant media attention, just got noticed. Speaking to the Denver-based Rocky Mountain News, Nader said he was unimpressed with Barack Obama and that the Illinois Senator was playing down poverty issues. ‘‘There’s only one thing different about Barack Obama when it comes to being a Democratic presidential candidate. He’s half African-American,’’ the veteran consumer advocate and political activist remarked. ‘‘Whether that will make any difference, I don’t know. I haven’t heard him have a strong crackdown on economic exploitation in the ghettos. Payday loans, predatory lending, asbestos, lead. What’s keeping him from doing that? Is it because he wants to talk white? He doesn’t want to appear like Jesse Jackson?’’
The independent candidate for President also said that Obama didn’t want to appear to be ‘‘another politically threatening African-American politician.’’ ‘‘He wants to appeal to white guilt,’’ Nader added. ‘‘You appeal to white guilt not by coming on as black is beautiful, black is powerful. Basically he’s coming on as someone who is not going to threaten the white power structure, whether it’s corporate or whether it’s simply oligarchic. And they love it. Whites just eat it up.’’
Nader’s remarks quickly ignited a political firestorm. Speaking to reporters, Obama dismissed Nader’s claim that the Democratic candidate was trying to ‘‘talk white’’ and had failed to challenge the power structure to appeal to ‘‘white guilt.’’ Obama added that Nader was trying to get attention with ‘‘an inflammatory statement.’’ Referring to his independent opponent, Obama said, ‘‘I think it’s a shame because if you look at his [Nader’s] legacy in terms of consumer protections, it’s an extraordinary one. But at this point, he’s somebody who’s trying to get attention and whose campaign hasn’t gotten any traction.’’ Obama added that Nader hadn’t been paying attention because the Illinois Senator had discussed predatory lending, housing foreclosures and similar economic issues throughout his campaign.
Nader told the New York Times that he would not apologize for his remarks. He reiterated his argument that Obama had not discussed poverty in the inner cities enough. The fact that Obama was African-American, Nader argued, should make a difference. “What difference it should make is that he would be more sensitive and determined to bring elevated visibility and concrete programs to deal with these issues,” Nader said. “Wouldn’t a woman president be expected to be more responsive to women’s rights? It’s just more natural.” He added that Obama had “obviously made a tactical decision that he’s not going to campaign politically as Jesse Jackson did. He wants to come across that he’s not politically threatening to the white power class and the liberal intelligentsia. It’s been a brilliant tactic.”
The racially charged rhetoric has led to a liberal firestorm, with many chiding Nader for being insensitive towards the African American community. Nader’s remarks even prompted CNN’s Anderson Cooper to devote an entire segment to the dustup. Appearing on Cooper’s show AC 360, Al Sharpton lambasted Nader for “going way over the line.”
Some of Nader’s comments about Obama are mundane and self evident to anyone who follows U.S. politics. From the day he won the Iowa caucus if not earlier, Obama has proclaimed his eagerness to transcend race and to bring different constituencies together: he’s built his entire campaign around this underlying idea. What’s more, the media itself has been chattering away for months now about Obama’s “post-racial” candidacy. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong about Obama’s electoral strategy; the question is whether the Illinois Senator has gone over the line in pandering to whites.
Obama’s attempt to navigate troubled racial waters was on abundant display during the “Jena 6” controversy in Jena, Louisiana. There, six black juveniles were arrested on murder charges. Tensions had simmered at Jena High School and in the small town for first three months of the 2006 school year after a black student asked the vice principal if he and some friends could sit under an oak tree where white students typically congregated. Told by the vice principal that they could sit wherever they pleased, the student and his friends sat under the sprawling branches of the tree in the campus courtyard.
The following day, students arrived at school to find three nooses hanging from the branches of the tree. The school’s principal reportedly recommended expulsion for those involved in placing the nooses. Instead however, a school district committee reportedly suspended three white students for three days calling the incident just a “prank.” Later several students jumped a white classmate, knocking him unconscious while stomping and kicking him. The charges against the six blacks — dubbed the “Jena 6” — resulted from that incident.
The Jena controversy became a cause célèbre, with civil rights leaders such as Al Sharpton rushing to Louisiana to protest racist handling of the case. “This is the beginning of the twenty-first century’s civil rights movement,” Sharpton remarked. “In the twentieth century, we had to fight for where we sat on the bus,” the civil rights leader added. “Now, we’ve got a fight on how we sit in a courtroom. We’ve gone from plantations to penitentiaries, where they have tried to create a criminal justice system that particularly targets our young black men. And now we sit and stand in a city that says it’s a prank to hang a hangman’s noose, but that it is attempted murder to have a fight. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others faced Jim Crow. We come to Jena to face James Crow, Jr., Esq. He’s a little more educated, a little more polished, but it’s the same courthouse steps used to beat down our people. And just like our daddies beat Jim Crow, we will win the victory over James Crow, Jr.”
After one of the teen’s charges was thrown out, Obama said “I am pleased that the Louisiana state appeals court recognized that the aggravated battery charge brought in this case was inappropriate. I hope that today’s decision will lead the prosecutor to reconsider the excessive charges brought against all the teenagers in this case. And I hope that the judicial process will move deliberately to ensure that all of the defendants will receive a fair trial and equal justice under the law.” In a separate statement, Obama said, “When nooses are being hung in high schools in the 21st century, it’s a tragedy. It shows that we still have a lot of work to do as a nation to heal our racial tensions. This isn’t just Jena’s problem; it’s America’s problem.” rights Jesse Jackson however accused Obama of delivering an inadequate response and declared that the Illinois Senator was ‘acting like he’s white,’ according to a South Carolina newspaper. Jackson later said that he did not recall uttering those exact words, but continued to condemn Obama for not bringing more attention to the Jena case. He added that Obama needed to be “bolder” in his stances. In a statement, Obama said his previous statements about the Jena 6 case “were carefully thought out” with input from his national campaign chairman and Jackson’s own son, Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., Democrat of Illinois. Seeking to avoid a polarized racial discussion, Obama said “Outrage over an injustice like the Jena 6 isn’t a matter of black and white. It’s a matter of right and wrong.” That statement wasn’t enough to satisfy Jackson however, who declared “If I were a candidate, I’d be all over Jena.” “Jena is a defining moment, just like Selma was a defining moment,” Jackson added.
Then Obama celebrated Father’s Day by chiding black fathers. African American men, Obama said, were “missing from too many lives and too many homes” to become active in raising their children. Taking on the role of a stern moral teacher, Obama remarked “They [black fathers] have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.” Contrasting himself with other more irresponsible black men, Obama declared “I resolved many years ago that it was my obligation to break the cycle – that if I could be anything in life, I would be a good father to my girls” [Obama has two daughters, Sasha and Malia].
Speaking to a largely black congregation at the Apostolic Church of God, a congregation located on the South Side of Chicago, Obama said “Any fool can have a child. That doesn’t make you a father. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.” Continuing with his moral sermon, Obama said that parents who proudly tell him their child gets great grades, all B’s, should encourage them even more: “All B’s? Is that the highest grade? It’s great that you can get a B, but you can get a better grade. It’s great that you’ve got a job, but you can get a better job.” Obama told his black audience not to simply “sit in the house watching SportsCenter,” and to stop praising itself for mediocre accomplishments. “Don’t get carried away with that eighth-grade graduation,” he said. “You’re supposed to graduate from eighth grade.”
It wasn’t the first time that Obama had spoken out on moral issues. Campaigning in Texas in February, Obama told blacks to take responsibility for the education and nutrition of their children and lectured them for feeding their children “cold Popeyes” for breakfast. “I know how hard it is to get kids to eat properly,” Obama said. “But I also know that folks are letting our children drink eight sodas a day, which some parents do, or, you know, eat a bag of potato chips for lunch. Buy a little desk or put that child at the kitchen table. Watch them do their homework.”
While Obama doesn’t deny that social injustice has contributed to the stresses on the African American family, he has gone out of his way to stress individual responsibility. In this sense, he echoes calls by African American comedian Bill Cosby, who stirred debate amongst blacks by bluntly speaking about an epidemic of fatherless African-American families. Cosby went even farther, suggesting that some blacks use racism as a crutch to explain lack of economic progress.
It seems like a fair guess that the Illinois Senator’s speechifying is designed wholly or in part to please racist whites who view African Americans as lazy and degenerate.
Nader should be commended for introducing issues that are important to inner city residents. That said however the consumer advocate is on a slippery slope when he argues that Obama is “talking white.” Is Nader implying that Obama is some kind of Oreo or Uncle Tom? Since Nader is Arab-American, Obama could just as easily shoot back and say that the independent candidate for the White House has not sufficiently challenged white racism towards Arabs and racist U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
Nader has said that the “number one thing” that a “black American politician” should do is address problems in the inner cities. But here Nader is making an assumption about what issues matter most to the African American community. It is reasonable to assume that blacks care a lot about predatory lending, asbestos and lead poisoning. Not all blacks are poor however, nor do all of them live in the inner city. Presumably the Arab-American community is not wholly monolithic in its views, either.
It’s not every day that the mainstream media pays attention to Nader, and as a result I was intrigued to see CNN’s Anderson Cooper take up this controversy on Wednesday night’s edition of AC 360. Cooper had a bizarre mixture of guests on the show including Ed Rollins (a white, long-time GOP operative who managed Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign), Al Sharpton, and Roland Martin, a black syndicated columnist, radio commentator, and author of the book Speak, Brother! A Black Man’s View of America.
Cooper introduced the segment by declaring that Ralph Nader, “a racial bomb-thrower,” was “mixing race and politics, targeting Barack Obama, accusing him of trying to talk white, in his terms, and ignoring problems in what he calls the ghettos. Did he cross the line?” Sharpton quickly jumped into the fray, remarking that though he had “respected Nader in the past…this is way over the line.”
Cooper then asked turned to Martin and asked, “Does his [Nader’s] rhetoric, does it come from another time?”
“The Spinners had a song that said, ‘everybody plays the fool sometimes, no exception to the rule,’” Martin replied. “This is Ralph Nader. That’s what it points to…the problem with Nader…is…he is defining black issues.”
Rollins then joined the discussion, remarking amusingly “as the only homeboy on this group here…I certainly am not going to tell you to talk whitey. The bottom line here, if you’re running for president, you try and talk to all Americans. And, basically, to be successful, you have to put coalitions together of blacks, whites, Christians, Jews, what have you to be successful.”
The conversation then took a rather unexpected turn when Cooper, who is white, asked Sharpton about the Jena 6 controversy:
COOPER: “Reverend Sharpton, we did find that Jesse Jackson had once criticized Obama during the whole Jena Six controversy for — quote – ‘acting like he’s white’…Is it OK for Jesse Jackson to use that term, not for Ralph Nader?
Cooper’s question seems reasonable enough, given that Sharpton himself was intimately involved in the Jena protests. But Sharpton, unlike Jackson, was unwilling to criticize the Illinois Senator:
SHARPTON: “You know, when we were dealing with Jena, Michael Baisden [a black radio commentator] and Martin III [the son of Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King] and I, I talked to Senator Obama. He released a strong statement that we felt was helpful, as did Senator Clinton and Senator Edwards at that time. People have the right to state their opinions, but I think you also have to deal with the fact we all have different roles…Senator Obama’s role is not to lead a march in Jena…There are those of us that do that. His role is, he is running for president for everyone…The last thing I think Barack Obama needs to do is run and try to become — to try and brush up his black credentials for Ralph Nader or his white credentials. And why isn’t he challenging John McCain on these issues? Now, is John McCain being asked to act more white, whatever that is? I mean, that’s crazy. And let me just say one thing I think is important. When Ralph Nader ran in 2000, I had him speak in Harlem. I had all the candidates. He spoke in Harlem. I didn’t get the idea that he hung out in Harlem too often. So, for him to be speaking for a community that I have only seen him in once — and that was the time I invited him.”
Sharpton’s comments on CNN are ironic in a couple of respects. To be sure, Nader should also take McCain to task for not confronting racial issues head on. It seems unfair to criticize Obama more than McCain on race just because the Illinois Senator is black. On the other hand it is odd that Sharpton, who has spent his entire life bringing attention to racial injustice and cases of racial bias, should somehow let Obama off the hook here.
At this point Martin chimed in, echoing Sharpton’s sentiments.
MARTIN: And Reverend Jackson did [get] his butt kicked by folks like me for making that stupid comment as well [presumably Martin is referring here to the occasion when Jackson accused Obama of delivering an inadequate response to the Jena 6 controversy; during the episode Jackson reportedly remarked that the Illinois Senator was ‘acting like he’s white’]. And, so, he backtracked from that. So, he got criticized, too, because it was a ridiculous comment.”
COOPER: He [Jackson] later on said he didn’t really remember saying it.
At this point the hapless Rollins, who had been left out of much of the discussion, interjected his own commentary:
ROLLINS: And I think the bottom line — I have a Chinese daughter. She’s 13 years old. If we’re going to start basically breaking this up by race and color and creed, it’s not going to be America. America is a country that needs to move forward. Four-dollar-a-gallon gas and up is a serious problem. Rebuilding our military…
MARTIN: For blacks or whites.
ROLLINS: For blacks or whites.
Despite Rollins’ and Martin’s calls for racial harmony however, it’s unlikely that race will disappear from the discussion any time soon
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)